One of the greatest delights as I walk around my farm in south-east Cornwall is seeing and hearing the abundance of wildlife that thrives on the land.
There are deer peeking out among the barley, fieldmice scampering in and out of hedgerows, and the earth beneath my feet teems with worms and dung beetles — a sure sign of healthy soil.
In summer I hear the sweet song of the skylark high above, — and many other species of bird, some endangered, thrive here, including the very rare grasshopper warbler. Farm and nature working hand in hand, symbiosis at its best.
But the Government sees it rather differently.
Under the Local Nature Recovery scheme and the Landscape Recovery scheme, farmers will be paid £800 million a year to ‘make space for nature’. (Stock image)
Agriculture is on a collision course with nature, in its view, as evidenced by the two new schemes announced this week by George Eustice, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
Under the Local Nature Recovery scheme and the Landscape Recovery scheme, farmers will be paid £800 million a year to ‘make space for nature’ by replacing fields of crops and livestock with wildlife habitats such as peat bogs and wetlands, planting trees and establishing new nature reserves.
Wonderful as that sounds — who doesn’t want more wildlife and woodlands? — this simplistic either/or approach to the countryside is potentially disastrous for farmers, consumers and, ironically, nature too.
George Eustice grew up on a fruit farm, not far from me in Cornwall. If anyone should understand that what is good for the farmer is also good for the land, it is George.
He has either forgotten or been overruled by the environmental zealots who have the ear of Boris Johnson and are pushing a narrow green agenda that will do more harm than good.
‘Make space for nature’ implies that farming and nature cannot co-exist, that one must give way to the other — farming to rewilding. This is nonsense, and my farm and others are proof of this.
Yet the green brigade has somehow convinced ministers that farmed land is damaged land, so farms must be carved up into distinct areas for nature and agriculture.
They want 30 per cent of farmland ‘rewilded’ — by which they all too often mean abandoned, left to brambles and nettles which choke other plants, creating scrubland that does nothing for diversity.
Another consequence of taking productive farmland out of production is that farmers will be forced to make the remaining areas yield even more to keep their enterprises going, which inevitably means the use of more intensive methods.
Since the end of World War II, government policy has driven yield maximisation. As the toll this takes on the environment — in terms of pollution and soil damage — has become clearer, a growing number of farmers are turning towards more nature-friendly methods.
We think long-term because we want to hand down our land to the next generation in better condition than we found it.
My wife and I took on our farm in 2008. We grow a variety of cereals and raise cattle and sheep.
‘Make space for nature’ implies that farming and nature cannot co-exist, that one must give way to the other — farming to rewilding. (Stock image)
But we have also planted more than 15,000 trees and tend 16 miles (25 km) of hedgerows, which shelter animals and crops from the wind while improving soil structure and providing a habitat for wildlife.
We work with Farm Net Zero, a National Lottery-funded project to improve soil quality, which not only makes it highly productive but also a healthy environment for earthworms, dung beetles and bacteria.
These further enhance its fertility, meaning we don’t need to use such large quantities of artificial nitrogen in the form of fertiliser.
How ironic — and tragic — if all the good work done by farmers like me over recent years is undone by others being forced to farm smaller areas more intensively, rather than using our nature-friendly approach.
Another obvious and devastating consequence of giving up productive farmland to rewilding is that we will have to rely more heavily on food imports.
Our national self-sufficiency in food has already fallen from 78 per cent to 60 per cent in 30 years. Rip out crops to make way for rewilding and we will become even more reliant on cheap imports from abroad, where animal welfare and environmental standards are much lower than here.
What is the sense — or morality — in cutting our carbon footprint at home, only to send it offshore by buying meat and crops from territories where they are not produced sustainably?
Under the Government’s future trade deals, it is proposed that much of our meat will be imported from countries such as New Zealand, where farming is highly intensive, never mind the carbon cost of transporting it across the globe.
We think long-term because we want to hand down our land to the next generation in better condition than we found it. (Stock image)
Cheap imports will destroy the livelihoods of UK farmers. Our farms cannot be green if our business goes into the red. We will simply go bust.
And Britain cannot necessarily rely on imports for ever. The populations of countries such as New Zealand are becoming more eco-conscious by the day and increasingly resentful about sacrificing their own environment to produce food for nations like us.
In time, we will have to turn to countries where farming is more reliant on polluting chemicals, animal welfare standards are virtually non-existent and environmental damage is simply ignored.Places such as Brazil, where rainforest is being systematically destroyed to make way for beef farming.
The UK Government’s ‘greenwashing’ may appease the green vote here, but it is disastrous in the long term.
Far better to take a balanced approach — integrating farming and nature — than simply dumping our problems abroad.
If we become reliant on imports from countries more vulnerable to climate change than we are, where droughts and floods devastate crops or disease blights livestock, we will one day face shortages.
Then we will rue the rewilding of our fertile, productive farmland, nurtured by a wonderfully temperate climate.
For it cannot be returned to agricultural use overnight. For every year we don’t invest in agriculture, it takes seven years to recover that lost investment time. If you plant trees, for example, their roots fundamentally change the structure of the soil for many years.
And with local councils under pressure to build more houses, you don’t have to be a cynic to wonder how long it will be before a ‘rewilded’ area left to nature and smothered by brambles is snapped up by land-hungry housebuilders and lost both to farming and nature for ever.
Farmers represent only about one per cent of the electorate, and we are busy from dawn until dusk. We don’t have time to respond to every new consultation and initiative the Government rushes out.
Our voices, and those of rural communities, have been drowned out by an unholy alliance of misguided — if well-meaning — green groups and vested interests. After all, carbon-offsetting has become big business and pension funds are making large sums from tree-planting schemes.
The Government must realise that farms can be the answer, not the problem. Farmers like me want to do the right thing for the planet and we need to do the right thing for our businesses. That means farming productively, sustainably and environmentally.
As a small country with a growing population, we must improve our food production, not give up on it.
Rob Halliday runs Cornish Valley Farming, on 450 acres, with his wife Louise and children William and Isla.